The head of Myanmar’s ethnic Shan rebel army has called on the government to take advantage of a break in hostilities to implement a comprehensive drug eradication program with the help of the United Nations in opium-rich Shan state.
Shan rebel leader Lt. Gen.Yawd Serk said that with a cease-fire agreement in place, he hopes to work with President Thein Sein’s government and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to make a change for the region and for Myanmar—the world’s second-largest grower of poppy, the plant from which opium is derived.
“Just as we signed an agreement for a cease-fire, we also want to participate in a drug eradication program in Shan state together with UNODC and the government during this period of peace,” he told RFA’s Burmese Service.
There have been fresh reports of clashes between government troops and ethnic rebels in northern Shan state, including those loyal to the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and another lesser-known ethnic group, the Ta’ang (Palaung) National Liberation Army (TNLA).
But neither the government nor the Shan rebels have expressed concern over any possible disruption to the existing peace deals.
Yawd Serk’s statement came following talks in Yangon last week during which Myanmar manager of UNODC Jason Eligh called for tighter law enforcement against drug traffickers in the country, while pledging assistance to both ethnic rebel groups and the government in anti-narcotics operations in Shan state.
An estimated 300,000 families grow poppy in the region, and Yawd Serk said that more poppy farms have increasingly sprung up within the last ten years due to a failing economy under the mismanagement of Myanmar’s former military regime and a high demand for opium on the international market.
The country’s new quasi-civilian government, which took power in 2011, has implemented significant reforms, but eradication programs have been ineffective in Shan state due to heavy fighting between the military and the Shan State Army (SSA) rebel group.
In January last year, the SSA and the military signed a cease-fire agreement, and while there has been sporadic fighting in the region, Yawd Serk said that now is the time to put projects into place that will offer the people of Shan state an alternative to the lucrative business of farming poppies.
“The government tried to eradicate drugs before we agreed to a cease-fire, but it would say that the program was unsuccessful because the poppy planting locations in Shan state were in [rebel-controlled] territories. They said they couldn’t get into these areas to stop the drugs,” he said.
“Now we have a cease-fire agreement in place and we can eradicate drugs in all locations, but there are still major differences between drug policies for the government and those for the SSA and [political wing] Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS).”
Yawd Serk said that the Myanmar government policy is to simply destroy poppy fields without providing an alternative crop to farmers, causing them to return to growing poppies as soon as the government leaves the area.
“We have to support farms with seeds and seedlings to give them an alternative to planting poppy. We have to give them an incentive by which they are growing and producing from those alternative crops within three years so that they can earn income and survive,” he said.
“We also have to create markets for the crops that they are planting.”
In addition to assisting farmers, he said, the government must build rehabilitation centers for drug users and educate them about the dangers of drugs. Drug dealers must be made aware that the government will target them if they do not cease operations, he said.
“If the people and the government collaborate together with us on drug eradication, we can achieve success within six years.”
Yawd Serk told the Irrawaddy last week that the SSA was working with the UNODC to launch a pilot project in Shan State’s Moe Nae and Mai Pan townships and had recently held talks with government officials this week about the drug issue.
He said that in addition to providing the Shan with an alternative to poppy farming, the Myanmar government needs to ensure that their desire for greater political representation is also met—a theme common to the demands of all of the country’s ethnic groups.
“If we take a look at what the ethnic groups want, there are basic similarities—even if the ideology seems different,” he said.
“Their needs are the same … to have a real federal union, a democratic country based on power sharing, and … a federal union army made up of small armies from different states.”
He also called on the government to amend the country’s junta-backed 2008 constitution, which guarantees the military a 25 percent quota in parliament, and to further develop infrastructure in Shan state.
Reformist President Thein Sein has signed cease-fire agreements with most of Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups since he came to power two years ago, and signed a temporary peace agreement at the end of May with the Kachin in a bid to end the country’s last major ethnic conflict.
But on Tuesday, government troops from Battalion No. 145 fired mortars on a Ta’ang rebel encampment located between the towns of Kutkai and Nanhkan in northern Shan state in an afternoon skirmish that lasted two hours,, TNLA secretary Maj. Mine Bone Kyaw told RFA.
He said that the bombardment recommenced in the evening, with the military lobbing shells into the TNLA camp at intervals of every 30-60 minutes, but was unable to provide a number of casualties.
Reports by the Kachin News Group indicate that sporadic fighting also occurred throughout last week in northern Shan state between civilian militias loyal to the KIO and the Myanmar military, resulting in the unconfirmed deaths of two government soldiers.
And last week, the Shan Herald quoted SSA spokesperson Maj. Sai La as saying that two Shan liaisons had gone missing and were believed to have been killed by the government troops—a claim the military denied.
Yawd Serk said he fears that without meeting the needs of Myanmar’s ethnic populations and establishing a firm peace plan, little progress will be made in eradicating the drug trade in Shan state.
“If we can’t make an agreement to end fighting during our discussions, the people will endure even more suffering,” he said.
According to the Shan Herald, Yawd Serk met with opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi at her residence in Yangon on Monday to discuss the current peace process and development in the country, a federal union state as a future of Burma, and the drug issue in Shan state.
Reported by Win Naing for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.